Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Everything Worth Seeing

I was at the home of a friend who lived on L.A.'s West Side when I first viewed an ESPN broadcast.

Lucky guy, I thought. Cable TV was in its infancy and my company in Glendale basically offered a package of bad reception and frequent outages.

My friend, however, had the ability to tune in an all-sports channel 24 hours a day, the dream of every red-blooded American male. I was insanely jealous.

So he flipped on his TV set one evening and ESPN was broadcasting a women's collegiate basketball game featuring the University of Conneticut, located a stone's throw from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Two broadcasters in slick green blazers adorned with the ESPN logo ran down the strengths and strategies of both teams.

With their insightful analysis and professional demeanor, they could have been calling the Super Bowl. But when the camera pulled back, it revealed an arena so empty you could almost hear the players breathe and a game that was as devoid of excitement as it was talent.

But what the heck, it was sports.

Later, when ESPN finally appeared on my cable system, I was offered a menu of Australian rules football, Thai kickboxing, darts and a telecast of an airplane race shot with from the ground, reducing the competitors to mere specks.

It once presented a delayed broadcast of the Rose Bowl game featuring two announcers who called the action from a studio in frigid Conneticut while waxing about the great weather in Pasadena.

ESPN has come a long way since then.

The cable company and the Bowl Championship Series this week reached a four-year deal beginning in 2011 to bring the Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and some national championship games from over-the-air Fox Sports to cable and satellite television.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the deal was worth $500 million over the four years, or about $100 million more than Fox had offered.

It also means ESPN now has it fingers in the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, professional golf, college basketball and football, major league baseball and a lot of stuff in between, from poker to bowling.

Why should you care?

- For one thing, ESPN is now the Big Dog in sports broacasting. It controls every major bowl game in the United States. It will decide to a great extent what you see and when you see it.

- This will end up costing you money. You may get ESPN as part of a basic cable package, but it isn't free. Your cable company buys ESPN's service and the price undoubtedly just went up. Of course, that will be passed onto you, the consumer.

- The ESPN deal does not officially include the Rose Bowl. Right now, the Rose Bowl has a contact with ABC to broadcast the New Year's day game. ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney and ESPN says the Rose Bowl game will remain on ABC until 2010. No decisions have been made, ESPN said, but you can bet they plan on shifting the game to cable. If you don't have cable, you won't be watching.

- The Rose Bowl's deal with Disney (ESPN and ABC), ESPN's deal with the BCS and BCS's deal with the NCAA all expire in 2014. And then what?

I'm betting ESPN will shell out big bucks to continue televising BCS bowl games.

I'm also betting ESPN will be switching the big bowl games to pay-per-view telecasts. That's right, folks, the Rose Bowl game will no longer be a freebie. ESPN already has a pay-per-view component as part of its multimedia package so it won't take a technological breakthrough to make this happen.

While all this is not necessarily good news for the viewing public, it might very well be good news for the Rose Bowl.

Fat television contracts and pay-per-view charges all mean additonal revenue and if there's one thing the Rose Bowl could use now it is a generous infusion of cash.

The stadium is old, in need of repairs and money is in short supply for the Grandaddy of Them All.

Of course, this all assumes the BCS won't get dumped in favor of a playoff series for college football, something advocated by no less than President-elect Obama who has vowed to put his weight behind such a plan.

But the President has a better chance of achieving world peace and establishing a bull market than he does of ending the BCS arrangement.

For one thing, the Pac 10 and Big 10 don't want to further diminish the Rose Bowl game, which would undoubtedly happen in a playoff scenario.

Second, there's too much money to me made under the current arrangement. Dump the bowl games and you're dumping cash.

When contract time comes around in 2014, it will be a whole new ball game.

And right in the middle of it all will be ESPN, the little cable company that could.

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